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Monday, May 16, 2022

Playing to Win

We got played last week. That was a major point in Middlebury sociology professor Linus Owens’ poignant op-ed on last week’s events surrounding the Charles Murray visit. To Phi Hoxie ’17 and Alexander Khan ’17, the president and vice president of the American Enterprise Institute club: you guys won this time — progressive students’ passion and convictions, the traits that make me proud to be liberal, ended up making us look bad. It angers me, above all, that the vileness of academic racism was not the headline, and passion and conviction for equality lost.

It angers me that the isolated, but still deplorable, violence that ensued last week left Professor Stanger in a neck brace. It upsets me that we are nothing more than “liberal snowflakes” in the eyes of the media. And, it kills me that Mr. Murray likely walked away from the day egotistically thinking that the protests were all about him.

I’m not going to point out the flaws in the protest movement here — although there are many — because that is not where our energy, as opponents of academic racism and racism of all forms, needs to go right now. Instead, we need to learn from our mistakes. We need to come together in a way that engages all voices and move forward as a community to ensure that we get our message across instead of making the story about us or the Charles Murrays of the world.

Last Saturday night, I sat down with my suitemate and fellow political science major, Maddie Hack, to assess what had happened and how best to move forward. We agreed that fostering an environment on campus that tolerates different viewpoints can come into conflict with protecting of the emotional safety of all students. We recognized that, contrary to what The New York Times article on the protests stated, Middlebury’s predicament is more complex and can’t be reduced to a liberal versus conservative worldview. We talked for hours, weighing opinions of respected classmates, friends and professors on all sides of the debate.

Like many, we believed from the outset that Mr. Murray’s problematic conclusions claiming genetic origins of the IQ differential between whites and African-Americans had no place in any institution of higher learning. We felt that, as students, we could engage with Mr. Murray’s arguments without his presence on campus by reading his work or by discussing his views with professors. Framing the issue as one exclusively over the right to free speech dangerously detaches Mr. Murray’s racially prejudiced views from their historical context of the physical violence that was justified by white supremacy. This framing also ignores the current situation at Middlebury in which minority and underprivileged students do not feel adequately supported by the administration and are understandably frustrated and angered. Inviting Mr. Murray here only adds to that anger, and subjects those students to a grossly unequal debate.

Before the speech, we thought, perhaps too optimistically, that Mr. Murray’s contradictions, his unfounded, prejudiced claims and methodological flaws could come to the fore in an intellectual debate. To that end, we made pamphlets refuting Mr. Murray’s claims to inform our peers on the methodological flaws and racial prejudice that underlie much of his work, and placed a copy on every seat in Wilson Hall. In making those pamphlets, one professor told me to seriously think about referencing Murray’s work in the pamphlet “Alternative Science,” even emailing me a link to an editorial backing up Mr. Murray’s controversial conclusions. Initially, that is what bothered me most — that many students and even some professors here did not dismiss Mr. Murray’s claims.

What happened on campus last Thursday is not unlike what is happening all over the U.S. The liberals are getting taunted by the right, and reacting with the full force of our convictions and our frustration, and that’s turning people against liberals, liberals against liberals and the media against liberals. But again, here at Middlebury, the debate is too complicated to be cast in terms of “us” against “them”.

Regardless, we fed a vicious cycle last week. Let’s not do it again.

Let’s reevaluate the College’s policy for determining who gets an invitation to campus, and thus institutional legitimacy. Let’s help the Political Science Department reevaluate its criteria for co-sponsorship. Let’s ensure that the AEI’s policy for inviting speakers is democratic. Let’s ensure that students can express their opinions without silencing others.

The right is going to play to win. It happens here and it’s happening all over the country.  If we don’t reorganize and meet with the people who allowed this event to happen, they’ll keep playing us, and all the good intentions of passionate Middlebury students won’t stand a chance.